Gongol.com Archives: November 2022
November 1, 2022
From the McDonald's on Chicago Avenue to the CVS Pharmacy at the end of Bourbon Street, self-service kiosks have been replacing live cashiers for quite a while now. The mass-scale adoption of the tools, now seen everywhere from Target to Home Depot to even Flying J Truck Stops, has been meet with more than a few protests from people who dislike the experience. Some compare it to being made into an unpaid employee of the retailer. ■ But it is a structural change, with no chance of going back. The costs of installing the scanners and other hardware have fallen by so much that self-service checkout has moved from novelty to mainstream in very short time. With low unemployment rates persisting and competitive pressures from online retailers sustaining, there will be no meaningful pressure for brick-and-mortar outlets to turn back. ■ Just as people today occasionally fawn over the perceived glamour of airline travel in the days before deregulation, people will someday pine nostalgically for the days before self-service displaced most human cashiers. But it's worth noting that some of the accoutrements that made classic airline travel look high-class were there because they offered means for airlines to distinguish themselves when they couldn't do the same with price. ■ Airline travelers are objectively better-off today than before deregulation; the experience may not appear as high-class, but flying is vastly safer and more affordable now than it was then. Likewise, we'll come to see that self-service will tend to make consumers better-off by keeping physical retail outlets in business and able to offer merchandise at competitive prices when they might not have been under the old status quo. ■ The self-service experience will seem inconvenient to some, but just as a premium air travel experience remains available on most airlines (for passengers willing to pay for First Class tickets), we'll see a "premium" checkout experience remain in some physical retail stores -- possibly at a higher price, with a "convenience fee" added for those who choose human checkout clerks. For the rest of us, the adjustment to a new baseline of self-service may remain jarring when it shows up in places we haven't seen it before, but it's here for good (and to some degree, for our own good).
November 2, 2022
Abandoned shopping carts and complaint forms
Some trivial-seeming behaviors don't just reveal people's inner sense of responsibility, they can go on to shape it. A good example is whether people return their shopping carts to a corral rather than leaving them loose in a parking lot. It turns out that the more people observe that taking responsibility and cleaning up after themselves is the social norm, the more likely they are to observe the norm. ■ Good behavior, then, has the capacity to be self-reinforcing. But someone has to be the first to follow the norm, otherwise it won't catch on. ■ It's obvious to any reasonable observer that these forces are on full display in the online dimension of life. Good behavior is often reinforced within digital communities that have the power to expel offenders, and bad behavior often cascades into exhibitions like flame wars and troll swarms. ■ There is an important but non-obvious role for public-facing institutions to play to help channel behavior towards the good, and it occurs in an unlikely interface between the physical world and the digital one. That role is, simply, to offer easy ways to report malfunctions, breakdowns, and other deviations from the expected standards through as many channels as possible, and to prominently solicit public help in submitting those reports. ■ It may not be obvious, for instance, that purple-tinted street lights are evidence of defective fixtures that need replacement. But that is what they are, and it isn't necessarily obvious (even to the individual who recognizes it as a problem) where to report the malfunction. ■ This places the burden on public agencies to make it quick and easy to submit a report through as many potential channels as can be made relevant to the problem. The public-minded citizen shouldn't have to do a lot of work to figure out what agency has jurisdiction over a matter or how properly to report it. ■ Submitting the report should be the easiest step, and the more complicated work of sorting and forwarding the report through the appropriate channels should fall on whatever agency first received it. People don't dial "411" anymore; they go online. But they're not equipped with infinite patience to figure out who is the right point of contact. ■ Making it as painless and intuitive as possible for a citizen to do the right thing -- to reinforce norms of pro-social behavior -- is an imperative task for any public-facing institution, especially when they're run for the benefit of the taxpayers.
November 4, 2022
People are easier to hack than hardware
The first phase of Internet security gave users the impression that the digital world was one dominated by random attacks by bandits hiding in the shadows. In that paradigm, the best defense was to come "armed" with a gunslinging sidekick in the form of a good anti-virus program that would protect you from the random, unpredictable outlaws out in the wild. ■ The good part of this paradigm was that it encouraged antivirus makers to compete with one another on quality. Rivalries, benchmarks, and side-by-side comparisons made it possible to evaluate the best. The bad part was that it did nothing to prepare the public for the next phase of Internet security. ■ That new phase is one in which it isn't so often the hardware that gets hacked, but instead it's the people. Once a vulnerability is discovered in a piece of hardware or software, patches can be coded, distributed, and installed. But people are not so easily patched. ■ What's needed next is an adjustment in which people realize that for all the Internet does to speed up many activities, the most important reaction for many people is to know when to slow down -- when to implement two-factor authentication (which slows things down), when to wait for secondary verification of information (which slows things down), and when to pick up the phone for a call or a text message to validate that a friend or colleague really sent a convincing-looking message with an unexpected link or an attachment (which, again, slows things down). ■ We aren't good at slowing down for our own safety. But there's only so much security that can be obtained by hiring protection. A fairly substantial revision of expectations is in order. The gunslingers still have their part to play, but the vastly more wicked and complex threats of today -- attacks like spearphishing and ransomware -- put far more of the balance of responsibility on the individual connected user. And until we start to upgrade our own personal defense mechanisms as quickly as software developers can patch their programming vulnerabilities, it's going to be people who are targeted most often -- and most effectively.
November 5, 2022
Factory breakouts and regime destabilization
If you assume people are like cattle and cannot be trusted, then information is your enemy. But control only holds up for so long: Even real cattle can break out into stampedes. ■ But people are not cattle, and that's the ultimate Achilles heel for authoritarian regimes. Even if you try to keep people in an information black hole, they still know what they can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears. That's what makes the "mass breakout" at a Foxconn manufacturing plant in China rather unsurprising. The Communist government has adhered to a nonsense policy on Covid that has kept people in the dark and bred panic. ■ Putting aside the dystopian qualities that lead objective news reporters to describe it as a "breakout" (who in the free world has ever contemplated, even remotely, the idea of being locked down involuntarily at a place of work?), the event illustrates the impossibility of keeping the Communist Party's charade forever. A long time? Maybe. Long enough to cause grave and pointless human suffering? Definitely. But not forever. ■ Evolution has conveniently given humans the power of imagination, which can piece together partial evidence to conjure up hypotheses. Just like we can "see" shapes in the clouds of the sky, we can see lots of other explanations in the world. Those explanations may or may not be correct, but we inevitably try to fill in the gaps. Doing so is expressly in our nature. ■ If you're running an authoritarian regime, you can tell yourself that you can hold people in the dark long enough to maintain control. And it can go that way for a while. But ultimately, the system is doomed to crack. Something goes so wrong that no amount of lying, denial, or obfuscation can keep people from recognizing it for themselves. ■ In free societies, governments sometimes try to hide the truth or even lie outright. It never ends well, but at least the consequences are generally contained. Someone usually suffers the fallout and ends up either getting booted from office or going to jail. The truth has come out on everything from the FBI's abusive tactics against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to what the Federal government knows about UFOs. ■ But when an entire government (like a Communist one) rests on a fundamental assumption of lies generated and truths hidden, it's inevitable that a day of reckoning will someday arrive -- with catastrophic consequences. The catastrophe can be expected first for the people, then for the regime. ■ Reality is the best friend of liberty, because people ultimately demand an honest reconciliation with the facts they can independently observe and verify to be true. That's when systems built on lies ultimately crumble. Sadly, the process is rarely painless.
November 6, 2022
Is it the process or the product?
When it comes time to offer gifts for the holidays, one of the most powerful words is "hand-made". A blanket? Nice. A hand-made blanket? Somehow seems more thoughtful. The same goes for a sweater, a pair of mittens, or a piece of art. ■ What is it about "hand-made" that gives something additional value? It seems strange to assume that a hand-made gift somehow contains more love, especially since it is so easy to purchase those gifts on websites like Etsy. If the gift wasn't hand-made by the giver, then what difference should it really make whether it was crafted by a disinterested third party or by a machine? ■ Perhaps the implied extra value comes from the fact that something hand-made almost invariably contains slight imperfections or other irregular aspects that give the product character. After all, the main point of mass production is to lower prices through standardization and efficiency. Mass-produced goods are all alike -- by design. It is their consistency that makes them reliable purchases. ■ Suppose, though, that we could introduce randomized instances of "character" into mass-produced goods. After all, the computing power exists to account for adding certain irregularities into mass production, in such a way that each item to roll off the assembly line could contain something unique in its design or manufacture -- just by enough, perhaps, to make it look hand-made. ■ And therein lies the central question: If a consumer were to see two goods, side-by-side, one literally made by hand, and the other mass-produced by a process that introduced irregularities that made it unique in the same way as its hand-made equivalent, then would one still sell for more than the other? ■ Would the gift recipient, if they knew nothing about the actual provenance of the good other than that it appeared to be hand-made and was demonstrably unique in some way, draw any distinction between the hand-made gift and the like-hand-made lookalike? Does it actually make a gift more sentimentally valuable because anyone's hands were involved in the process, whether or not those hands were those of the giver? ■ People appear willing to pay for faux authenticity, in the form of ripped jeans and pre-distressed hats, so it might just be that the answer is right before our eyes already. But it is only now that we are reaching the stage when technology could plausibly offer ways to turn items like blankets that come off the assembly line a little too flawlessly and convert them into like-handmade alternatives, and do so without really introducing meaningful new costs to the process. ■ So, which is it: Do people favor the idea of the actual artisanal process, or are they invested more in the uniqueness of the goods they own? Perhaps in a holiday season or two, we'll discover someone has performed an experiment to gather the evidence. Surely it won't be longer than that before they will try.
November 7, 2022
The timeless advice in the world of communications is to put the person with the dirtiest mind in line to be the final editor before any item is released to the public. Where an institutional reputation needs to be protected, the person with the best chance of catching double entendres and unintentional malapropisms is the person most likely to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them. ■ Someone may need to establish a corollary rule for propagandists: One which says that the final editors should be the ones least committed to the cause. Some of the people who are the most inclined to believe the nonsense of totalitarian machines appear to be the people in charge of propagandizing on their behalf. ■ Take the case of Chinese Communist propagandist Hu Xijin, who thinks that it's somehow a hilarious takedown of Western institutions to point out that Liz Truss lasted only 45 days as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom before being replaced by her own party, and has subsequently been roasted in effigy to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. ■ If people like Hu weren't so deeply gullible about their own worldview, they would understand that there's nothing at all insulting in saying that the people of Western liberal democracies feel free to jettison leaders who no longer suit their needs or who show themselves to be incapable of the task at hand. That's not a flaw; it's a central feature of the design. ■ Any institution worth its salt needs to be equipped to replace low performers with high performers. It is a characteristic shortcoming of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that they don't have an equivalent process for removing leaders who fail to respond to public expectations. It takes a certain kind of dope to believe that democratic processes are anything less than a good thing for serving the public. ■ As the columnist Matthew Brooker notes, "Try getting rid of Xi Jinping. Or burning an effigy of him." He can't be mocked or lampooned, much less removed by democratic initiative. He has stacked the deck to make himself impervious to criticism. ■ Along the way, Xi will be propped up by obtuse half-wits who don't know enough to recognize that a little turnover in high office is usually a good thing. While no one of goodwill ought to be trying to help those particular dopes, it is perhaps amusing to realize that what they need most are editors who don't really believe their own hype. ■ Ultimately, authoritarian systems collapse under their own weight. Unaccountability creates bad feedback loops, and an institutional resistance to contrarian thoughts only guarantees that high-quality information never reaches the right decision-makers in time. The sad part is that there is always so much human suffering in the meantime, while inertia keeps bad regimes afloat. ■ There is incalculable sclerosis of thought within Communist circles. They are interested only in raw power, and that deeply crass view of the world ought to be rewarded with nothing but firings all around. Unfortunately, that won't be forthcoming in the near term under China's Communist power structure. And when it ultimately does, lots of innocent people will suffer even more than they have already.
November 8, 2022
The claws always come out at election time, and there never seems to be a shortage of doomsaying among those who follow politics as a substitute for other meaningful concerns. But both election denialism and democracy-could-die fatalism, there seems to be mounting evidence that lots of people believe that we lurch not from election cycle to election cycle, but from existential crisis to existential crisis. ■ How much would our rancor be reduced if politics were taught in history books and classes not as the momentous achievement of big, discrete goals (like the Great Society, the New Deal, or the institution and repeal of Prohibition), but rather as the dynamic interplay of people trying to exhibit and demonstrate some level of decency and sagacity? ■ People talk about campaigns "peaking too soon", when in reality, we merely fixate on early November as the time to take the voting public's temperature. Those ebbs and flows of popularity are non-stop; public opinion is always in motion. Thus, it's not so much a matter of "peaking too soon" as it is "taking the vote at an inopportune time". ■ There really are decent, well-motivated people in office and campaigning for a seat at the table. There always have been. And while they may quite well engage in some of the discrete movements, it's more the case that they make decisions within an ever-evolving environment, and we should look more to their overall quality of judgment than to the specific policies they talk about. ■ The more we approach questions of politics as if they were either-or events, like a soccer match or a baseball game, the less inclined we are to appreciate the process itself, and how important keeping that process clean really is. It's far better for 100% of the people to get 60% of what they want than for 60% of the people to get 100% of what they want. ■ It isn't natural to get excited over the premise that one should embrace disappointment in 40% of the outcomes. But, to an extent, that's the point: Normal people ought to have many other sources of excitement in life than politics, and we should be comfortable with a lot of results that don't leave us cheering. Being moderately ambivalent isn't an altogether bad thing if it means that compromises are being brokered and many varied interests are being served.
November 9, 2022
What if Bloomberg had beaten Musk?
In a more rational universe, Elon Musk wouldn't have been the billionaire to purchase Twitter. It would have been Michael Bloomberg. ■ Not as a personal vanity exercise, which is thus far what the Musk purchase appears to be. Bloomberg could have bought it as a perfectly sound business venture (within the existing business he already controls). ■ Bloomberg's services in news and financial reporting are well-established as best-in-class market leaders. They have worldwide reach, operate 24 hours a day, and benefit from a massive ability to aggregate and organize data, serving it up as valuable information. Twitter, meanwhile, has become itself a thriving center for informational immediacy. ■ For all of its shortcomings, Twitter inhabits a unique position as the consensus online gathering spot for news and politics. That position was absolutely cemented by the environment of second half of the last decade. ■ Were a capable institution to have non-stop, direct access to the full flow of posts on Twitter, and use computing tools to mine real intelligence from all of that raw data, it would have a real gold mine of salable information at its disposal. And as an institution with a reputation to uphold, Bloomberg LP would have had the incentive to impose sensible rules for user behavior that would have preserved and perhaps even enhanced its value (instead of sparking a small user exodus, which is what's happening now). ■ The indications were there that Bloomberg had considered the possibility -- it entered into a special arrangement with Twitter to license data back in 2015. And perhaps Bloomberg gets all of the value it needs from that existing agreement, but nothing beats true vertical integration when you can get it. ■ Michael Bloomberg himself has in the past been reluctant to grow his business through acquisition, which is perhaps the reason none of this ever came to fruition. He wrote in his memoir, "I'd make a terrible venture capitalist; every company I look at seems overpriced. I always think we can create it more cheaply ourselves." ■ But building a Twitter equivalent would be nearly impossible due to its existing network effects, and things are changing so quickly that Bloomberg leadership has already pulled back on employee use of the site. There's always a chance that the current owner will diminish the market value of the property enough that an enticing price will come along: One that even the reluctant venture capitalist wouldn't be able to resist.
November 10, 2022
The story of a Caterpillar employee who died in a foundry accident is altogether too gruesome to contemplate. It was only his ninth day on the job, and he perished for lack of fall protection. Hundreds of Americans die from on-the-job falls, especially in construction, but not limited to it. The rate is more than three deaths a day every regular workday of the year. ■ All kinds of attention is being paid to the impact of tech-sector layoffs as an indicator of the health of the economy. But for most of the people in that sector, there is no meaningful existential risk involved with showing up on the job. ■ And yet, inside that very same economy, we still implicitly tolerate an unfathomable number of risky choices every day. Sure, there's OSHA and any number of state-level safety regulators. But there's a difference between what anyone can hope to regulate and the essence of a design culture that starts with safety at the center. ■ In any kind of sane world, a death from falling into a vat of molten iron would have been engineered right out of the realm of possibility. Safety must be designed into every workplace from the start. ■ If it were, we wouldn't record thousands of workplace fatalities -- even setting aside transportation-related deaths. We reduce them to mere statistics out of necessity, but every one of those lives belonged to a person just as unique and human as any of the rest of us. ■ We're rich enough, technologically advanced enough, and civilized enough that intrinsically, deliberately safe working environments shouldn't be a matter dependent upon regulatory oversight. That should just be another case of "just the way things are".
November 12, 2022
Delta Airlines has entered into an arrangement to purchase a small fleet of electric air taxis. The move is being represented as a tool for the airline to provide door-to-door service for passengers who live in crowded urban areas, saving them time stuck in traffic and ultimately making air travel a more time-efficient option. ■ While that may be an outcome, observers shouldn't overlook the possibility that electrified air travel (especially if it can be made autonomous) could actually have its most substantial impact in serving mid-sized metropolitan areas -- the kind that are often the leading economic engines for laborsheds 50 miles in diameter. ■ The aircraft Delta is poised to put into service have a range of 150 miles, which is much more than urban-dwellers need to reach major airports. Certainly there are people who consider themselves New Yorkers who might still benefit from that kind of range, but for the most part, even with the expanding bullseye effect, it's not all that far as the crow flies, even from the edge of any given American metropolitan area to the main airport. ■ Go far enough out, and another airport will take advantage: Westchester County Airport is 35 highway miles from JFK. Milwaukee's Mitchell International and Rockford (already branded as "Chicago/Rockford") aren't all that far from O'Hare. And JFK already has LaGuardia in its immediate vicinity, just as O'Hare has Midway. ■ But consider, for example, the distances involved between the medium-sized metropolitan areas ringing Iowa: Des Moines to Omaha: 120 miles. Omaha to Sioux City: 90. Sioux City to Sioux Falls: 75. Sioux Falls to Mankato: 150. Mankato to Rochester: 75. Rochester to Waterloo: 100. Waterloo to Dubuque: 85. Dubuque to Davenport: 70. Davenport to Cedar Rapids: 65. And from Cedar Rapids back to Des Moines: 110 miles. ■ Converting these trips from hours in a car to minutes by air, and making them as predictably routine as bus stops, would tie the region conveniently together in a way that is impossible to imagine for now. They are impractical for commercial air service as we know it today, but the highway vehicle counts make it clear that those connections already have lots of travelers on them. ■ Time saved and connections enhanced would be robustly good for the communities and their economies alike. The idea of enhancing travel between and among them suffers because the constituency is diffuse, and, to some extent, remains under-developed. But it is real nonetheless and has great potential to do real good.
November 13, 2022
Better off without the invaders
People in liberated Kherson celebrate the departure of occupying Russian forces. But as Reuters notes, "'The enemy mined all critical infrastructure objects,' [governor] Yanushevych told Ukrainian TV." Know that this is the behavior of war criminals.
November 14, 2022
Good behavior starts with the tone at the top
Some tools get outsized attention because of who uses them. We know a lot about the DC Metro in part because so many prominent people ride aboard it. We recognize clapperboards and green screens because they're used by the people we see on television and movie screens. And the world cannot help but be aware of Twitter because it features so prominently as a tool used by journalists -- both as a source of information and as a distribution mechanism. ■ That one social-media tool ends up in such a spotlight has made the manic behavior of Twitter's new owner the subject of a disproportionate amount of attention. But the mass layoffs, while eye-popping, aren't by themselves an existential risk. Lots of companies have had painful and dramatic layoffs and survived. ■ What the company might not survive is the de-institutionalization of good behavior. The company's chief information security officer, chief privacy officer, and chief compliance officer all resigned at once. Contractors responsible for content moderation have been fired en masse. At least one means of two-factor authentication has fallen into extreme disrepair. ■ Any institution -- a company, a government agency, a church, a social-media service -- needs to institutionalize good behavior. It needs internal rules and culture that keep it on the straight and narrow. And it needs roles -- like chief information security officer -- that give insiders the authority structure to ensure that good behavior is enforceable. If those roles aren't valued, it's impossible for good behavior to become ingrained in the system. ■ The key, always, is to keep the good behavior from turning sclerotic or delivering unintended consequences. Nobody needs to waste their time obsessing over cover sheets for TPS reports. They need to respect institutional constraints on behavior, share a culture that emphasizes doing the right thing, and devote their best thinking to making sound decisions about hard questions. ■ Wrecking the institutional structures that help (even if incompletely) to guide an organization towards good behavior isn't just a matter of bad sense. It's a matter of opening up enormous potential liabilities -- of the very real financial variety. But it shouldn't take that kind of motivation to keep things well inside the lines for good behavior.
Some Regular American for Speaker of the House
We could do a lot worse.
November 15, 2022
Ukraine sends greetings to NATO
The country's foreign minister writes, "Ukraine is willing to further contribute to collective Euro-Atlantic security and protect the eastern flank of NATO -- even though we are not yet members of the Alliance." If you've paid even a modicum of attention to this war, the takeaway is that any defensive alliance with even a shred of self-interest or brainpower would want Ukraine on its side. The people have proven themselves very, very good at learning and adapting to become a formidable fighting force.
November 16, 2022
A country as advanced as the United States should never be taken truly by surprise. There may be certain incidental events that come unexpectedly from a tactical perspective, but at the strategic level, there really shouldn't be any developments that come out of the blue. ■ Individual agencies sometimes show real foresight, but it seems peculiar that we don't have a dedicated national strategic planning agency. We get advice periodically from commissions (like Cyber Solarium), think-tank reports, and forward-thinking departments. But we seem congenitally short on holistic attempts to figure out where trouble could turn up and how we could go about preempting it. ■ No one has a guaranteed forecast of the future. But it ought to be someone's dedicated responsibility to consider large-scale, systemic risks on behalf of the American public. Someone to warn that cryptocurrencies could melt down in spectacular fashion. Someone to beat the drum about having enough naval tonnage at our disposal. Someone to advocate for the "strategic" part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. ■ More often than not, a task left unassigned is a task that will never be done. Considering the sheer magnitude of the government that is being operated on behalf of the American public, it makes no sense that no one is routinely assigned the task of developing real strategic plans to recognize, give warning about, and learn to account for big public risks.
Sometimes it's best to slow things down
Elon Musk says he's spending practically all of his time working on Twitter. Heed Bill Gates's advice: "It's not a proxy of your seriousness that you've filled every minute in your schedule."
NASA's Artemis I launch is a big deal
After sending in a "red crew" to fix things after the rocket had already been fueled, NASA successfully launched a most spectacular rocket into space. We have a Moon program once again.
November 17, 2022
In principle, the state of California is big enough to have its own space program. With a $3 trillion economy, it is in a class with Japan, whose $5 trillion economy sustains a full-fledged space program. ■ Likewise for Ohio, which with 12 million people is bigger than Israel, which has had an official space agency since 1983. And the same for Texas, whose $2 trillion economy is within striking distance of the $3.6 trillion economy (in 2017 dollars) of the entire United States in 1961, when John F. Kennedy announced the plan to go to the Moon. ■ Despite having the people and the wealth to drive their own ambitious space programs, these (and the other states) still pool their efforts behind NASA. Sharing a common agency and rallying behind it is an identity-building exercise for Americans, almost as much as the collaboration serves as a force multiplier. ■ After all, NASA routinely touts the productivity of its work in partnership with other countries' space agencies. The same thing could, hypothetically, be done with a California-ASA, a Texas-ASA, and even a Delaware-ASA and a Wyoming-ASA -- their independent work could be federated under a common umbrella for maximum impact. ■ But having a single agency, a common identity, and a merged pool of resources allows NASA to serve a nation-binding role, by driving toward audacious goals. It has been a while since we've had a really bold headline goal of that sort, but the successful launch of the Artemis-I rocket on a test flight to the Moon is the first highly tangible step in reviving that big-mission ideal. ■ Not every big mission worth doing has any real binding effect; nobody is going to get amped up over a national cybersecurity agenda, no matter how important it is to undertake. And not every big project will be necessary -- sometimes undertakings are done just because the obstacle is there. ■ But we're better off for having an agency like NASA, especially when it can commit to doing big things, in part and in essence, "just because we can". Those serve a mission of national identity in a way that no loose federation of state space agencies really could.
Your career is not your character, and your character is not your career. We could stand to say those things out loud more often. The world needs people who refine their working skills, of course, but even more than that, it needs people who prioritize enhancing their own character.
How Google could boost Mastodon
Raymond Johnson sagely observes that Google already has a giant user footprint. It could open a Mastodon "instance" and let all Gmail users into the social network with little to no friction. That, in turn, would put pressure on Twitter to moderate its own behavior in this turbulent moment.
November 18, 2022
Making happy children even in colorless rooms
It's hazardous to take any news report on trends with any degree of seriousness. After all, what is a trend other than an arbitrary choice that happens to have been noticed by the right people? But sometimes trend stories really do identify patterns that are starting to emerge. ■ The Wall Street Journal has identified the rise of "sad beige" in baby (or toddler and child) departments in stores everywhere. They trace it back to social-media "influencers" and marketing departments who have advanced a mainly color-free approach to interior decorating -- and who, in turn, apply the same philosophy to child-rearing. ■ Some people are simply lazy and find it easy to mix and match things like clothing and linens when everything comes from the same bland palette. It's not high-minded reasoning, but it sticks in some quarters. Others are motivated by the theory that subdued colors will bring calm to the household environment and keep from "over-stimulating" the young brain. ■ If, as that theory would have it, children are formed mainly by the stuff all around them, then someone would need to explain how anyone made it out of the Middle Ages without emerging as a broken spirit. Or how any normality survived exposure to, say, the 1850s. ■ Child development isn't a function of environmental colors. (It might make a marginal difference for a child to be exposed to a wide range of stimuli, but it's not the core determinant.) In reality, it has always been about the love and care and attention paid to kids by families. ■ And it has always been that way. Abraham Lincoln's childhood wasn't shaped by the color of his dirt floors, but by the love he felt from his mother and stepmother. What matters most is whether children can develop secure attachments. ■ It is pure nonsense to let Instagram-driven theories prevail. The job of parenting isn't done by pulling the "right" hues out of a catalog. It's done, one-on-one, by attending to the child's needs and showing them affection.
Elon Musk is reportedly demanding that programmers show up for urgent, in-person meetings at the company headquarters on short notice. People respond to incentives, but much less so to orders. That's especially so when those people (like programmers) have high-demand skills.
November 19, 2022
Pension funds lose on cryptocurrencies
Modern Portfolio Theory gives financial people the cover to do some really stupid things, like investing pension fund assets into cryptocurrency markets, then watching millions of dollars go to zero. ■ Just because something appears in a textbook or is taught in finance classes doesn't mean it's actually sensible. People have believed (and documented) all kinds of idiotic things in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The Flat Earth Society proves that. ■ Investing should be done on the basis of arriving at informed judgments using sound reasoning. The belief that this can be done by substituting a bunch of elaborate formulas for that judgment is like thinking you can create an orange by dehydrating a gallon of Tang. ■ Sound reasoning would have scared any sensible investor away from cryptocurrency. But adherence to the textbook formulas told others that there was an ideal, non-zero amount they should have invested in the new "asset class" to achieve "balance". ■ To invest is to conclude that $1 doing some form of work is exceedingly likely to be redeemable for more than $1, with a rate of increase that satisfies a tolerable time horizon. If it's not that, it's just speculation. And speculation can be fun (just like a trip to a casino), but it's not investing. ■ That may sound terribly moralistic, but if there isn't at least some moral judgment involved, then the investing process is incomplete. Investing is a human endeavor, and the necessary judgments that go into whether an investment is suitable or not simply cannot be automated. ■ Some investments may be profitable but socially harmful (cigarette manufacturing, for instance). Others might look high-risk at first blush, but have such prospects to do good down the road (like high-efficiency small nuclear plants) that their financial prospects are tied in part to their future social utility. And, as the people who placed money with Bernie Madoff learned, numbers don't necessarily tell the truth if the person reporting them is a crook. ■ Institutional investors who think they have to invest according to risk-weighted portfolio formulas really ought to think twice. Just because the risk may involve only a small share of a portfolio, that doesn't mean it's a risk worth taking.
November 21, 2022
Perhaps every parent should try urging their kids on to the school day with the aid of the William Tell Overture
November 22, 2022
Some of the best management advice ever offered was delivered to the leaders of Poland's Solidarity movement by Margaret Thatcher: ""How do you see the process from where you are now to where you want to be? Because whatever you want to do, it's not only what you want to do, but how -- the practical way you see it coming about [...] Write down the ten steps from where you are now to where you want to be." ■ It is at our own peril that we fail to think through a similar list as the people of the free world look on at the incipient Iranian revolution sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini while in the hands of the country's "morality" police. ■ People don't have to subscribe to all of the tenets of classical liberalism to have a genuine desire for freedom. And when a regime is so utterly corrupt as to deliberately kill children as a means of punishing and trying to quash dissent, anyone possessing a normal set of human sensibilities knows that regime has lost any reasonable claim to credibility. ■ It is not for the United States or any other outside country to force the next steps. But if we are not neutral about the outcome -- and we ought not to be -- then we ought to have a coherent, thought-out strategy for "the ten steps from where you are now to where you want to be." ■ What are we doing to deliver news and information where those may be scarce? Are we expressing support for the right side at the right volumes and through the right channels? Is there intelligence or other support that could be of use to the people organizing to demand their own freedom? Do the right people within the regime know what would happen if they switched sides? ■ Plans must always be tempered by humility. Nobody knows the future, and uncertainties will always introduce new contingencies. But it is incomplete to merely hope that good things will happen. ■ Iran is one of the top 20 countries in the world by population, with more than 86 million people. What happens there is inherently consequential, and while its destiny ought to be in the hands of its own people, that destiny shouldn't be left to idle hope if there are supportive, humane, and empathetic ways the free world can lend its support. ■ Those 86 million people deserve better than a government so evil it would use the bodies of the dead as hostages. If we want to help those people, it's on our shoulders to think carefully -- but urgently -- about "the practical way you see it coming about".
A fascinating Ukrainian response to continuing Russian assaults on basic civilian infrastructure. Per Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Telegram channel: "If massive Russian strikes take place again and if there is an understanding that the electricity supply cannot be restored within hours, the work of Points of Invincibility will be activated -- all basic services will be there, including electricity, mobile communications and the Internet, heat, water, and a first-aid kit. Absolutely free and 24/7." Ukraine is really re-writing the rules of defensive war.
Russian politician threatens to chase Zelenskyy forever
The sheer hollowness of this menace's soul is chilling. He dresses like a businessman but has the craven impulses of a barbarian. Ukraine didn't start the war, and everyone on Earth can see that.
The launch of Artemis I was a monumental event for NASA, the American people, and ultimately for the world
China has turned the Hong Kong police into a pathetic institution chasing down insults against the national anthem. Matthew Brooker puts it well: "One consequence of creating a vast, overweening and lavishly funded security state is that its personnel will be on a constant hunt for something to do, no matter how ludicrous or trivial". That those "things to do" are petty does nothing to diminish how revolting they are.
November 23, 2022
The United Nations says we have just crossed the threshold of a global population of eight billion people. The US Census Bureau thinks we're still at 7,934,000,000, but what's a discrepancy of a mere 66,000,000 people between friends? There have always been plenty of voices urging that there are too many people, but consider a few of the realities in perspective. ■ Albert Einstein was born in 1879, at which time Earth's population was probably 1.42 billion. Even if you assume that Einstein was a singularly brilliant figure for his time -- the solitary most brilliant person on the planet, even -- then the odds should have it that we have at least five or six people roaming the planet today who are equals to Einstein. ■ The numbers are even more striking the farther back we look. Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 to a world of no more than 500 million. Odds are, the planet is populated by 16 equivalent "da Vincis" today -- enough to fill the roster of an NBA team. ■ Socrates (born in 469 BCE) was probably only one in 200 million, meaning there could be 40 Socratic equals among us today -- enough to fill a small regional passenger jet. ■ Before anyone scoffs at the comparisons or dismisses the figures as too remote, consider what has gotten better since the births of any of those great minds. Our food supply is vastly greater. Infant and child mortality has plunged. We have gained antibiotics and worked to purge lead from paint. ■ Books are cheaper and many are freely available in digital format. Great museums offer virtual tours and the Internet Archive is working to digitize practically everything. The Internet itself is an ever-pulsing source of expert opinions and instantaneous news. ■ But more importantly, while there remain many substantial challenges to be overcome, there is more human freedom and more fundamental equality than in any era of the past. For most of human history, only men were broadly free to pursue their maximum self-actualization -- and even then, that freedom was only open to some men. ■ There remains much work to be done, but the odds have never been higher that a truly gifted person could do the most possible with their endowments. And, assuming that talent has been fairly equally distributed throughout history, the odds are extremely high that we have more great geniuses living among us than at any time in history. ■ Eight billion is a lot of people. And big crowds can beget big problems. But the numbers -- and the conditions -- should give us hope that the very best days for the world remain ahead.
Dispatch from a Russian prison
From a prison some 500 miles away from the battle front, Alexey Navalny writes, "So, one commercial went like this: 'We give last farewells to military personnel and civilians. Discounts for combatants and military personnel. In your hour of loss call...' Can you imagine the death toll in the war with Ukraine, the amount of coffins that arrive from it, if even in the 134,000-large Kovrov there's such fierce competition in the booming funeral services market that funeral parlors have started to buy radio ads?" Russia could stop the Kremlin's senseless war of aggression at any time.
Cranberry relish for Thanksgiving
If you aren't making it, you're missing out
November 24, 2022
"All I want for Christmas is you..."
...or a modicum of musical talent. Think of the royalties a person could earn by producing a bunch of holiday novelty songs, to be played every year, like clockwork. Think of the money Mariah Carey brings home every year because of just one earworm.
Japanese soccer team leaves locker room cleaner than they found it
It's like the "Midwest Stack", but on steroids
What happens when you ask artificial intelligence to conjure up images of analog computer dreams
November 25, 2022
There are those who argue that Thanksgiving is an invalid or contaminated holiday because it can be seen as the fruit of moral shortcomings in American history. There are some who hold this view loosely and admit to thoughtfully struggling with the question, and there are others who hold it quite radically. ■ It's true that we would not have a Thanksgiving tradition without the literal practice of colonialism. The Pilgrims weren't invited to modern-day Massachusetts by the Wampanoag; they invited themselves and went on to cause the indigenous people tremendous grief. It is worth reckoning with the harm done over centuries. ■ But we moderns need to find ways to maintain the abstract practice of thankfulness even as we reconcile with very real harms. The Thanksgiving holiday is about an inheritance -- a cultural one, but an inheritance nonetheless. It is a morally sound practice to celebrate the inheritance of the imperfect-but-evolving American tradition and to give thanks for the human liberty and material abundance that emerge from it. In a world absent the America we know, it's not hard to imagine that totalitarians and fascists would have subjugated far more people for far longer. America is imperfect, but it has also been a bulwark against forces much worse. ■ Perhaps we would be a better country if, in addition to Thanksgiving, we separately observed a national day of atonement. There are shortcomings both in our past and in our present. It would be congruent with a healthy moral imagination to celebrate a day on which Americans would recognize failures, make amends, and commit to doing better in the coming year. ■ But just as in the Jewish tradition, wherein the day to mark the new year is closely related to, but separated from, a day to atone for one's failings, we need a day of Thanksgiving to stand on its own so that we focus upon the gratitude itself. ■ Gratitude is essential to having a balanced understanding of the world. So is a commitment to self-improvement. And though self-improvement is a fundamental aspect of the American character (see, for instance, the inclusion of an amendment process within the Constitution), perhaps we would be better off recognizing that need for reconciliation and growth with an explicit day. ■ But the need for that day should not displace celebrating a day of gratitude to something bigger than ourselves. Thanksgiving should make us better by reminding us that there are bigger things in the world than our own idle egos. If we need to make ourselves more righteous by tying it to a national day for peacemaking and reconciliation, then we ought to be open to that, too.
November 26, 2022
The holidays are often a time of introductions. At company holiday parties, family get-togethers, and neighborhood open houses, people find themselves turning to small talk as they encounter other people for the first (or second) time. ■ The go-to question among Americans is almost always "What do you do for a living?" The problem isn't the question, but the danger of making assumptions based on the answers. Career and character are two entirely different things, but they're often hard for us to segregate adequately. ■ Dan Brooks -- whose occupation the reader doesn't need to know -- puts it well: "[P]lease stop forming concepts of folks based on what they do. Some of us have fixed identities that both determine our behavior and exist independently from it, and it's exhausting to have to keep explaining that." ■ It's sound modern advice. We are a hard-working country, as well we should be. But we often don't introduce non-occupational value into circulation like we should. It's awkward to shoehorn it into conversation ("Are you more of a stoic or a utilitarian?"), and the more cynical we permit our culture to be, the less likely it is to find its way in naturally. ■ More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character." ■ Careers change. Entire industries come and go. Nobody is a lamplighter anymore, and we're told that artificial intelligence will destroy lots of jobs in the future. ■ But we continue to revere people -- both public figures and family legends -- for acts of character and honor. It wouldn't hurt any of us to find more ways to naturally integrate measures of fixed identity into conversation, at the holidays or any other time of year. It might not make for intuitive introductory conversation, but it should probably place somewhere before occupational chatter.
Censorship can't make your own eyes lie to you
Governments can try to censor the news, but people can often sense when they're being lied to. Per AFP: "Hundreds of students from Beijing's elite Tsinghua University took part in a protest against Covid lockdowns on Sunday [...] The protest at Tsinghua follows an overnight demonstration at neighbouring Peking University". People are gathering to demonstrate what the Communist Party doesn't want to acknowledge is happening.
Don't share evil content, even to ridicule it
We have to apply human self-discipline in order to defeat the shortcomings of algorithms. For now, at least, most social media tools consider any form of sharing or amplification to be the equivalent of an endorsement, so don't do it.
November 27, 2022
For a variety of reasons, from the ecological to the economic, many experts on human development patterns like to see increasing population density. When people can live closely together, they tend to create less pollution (per capita). At the same time, denser populations are also associated with greater economic productivity. ■ But rules often stand in the way of density. In particular, regulations setting minimum lot sizes for single-family houses are widely used and have fairly self-evident consequences for limiting population density. In some locations, though, local conditions force people to look at housing demand differently. ■ A tiny existing lot in Philadelphia was used by an architecture firm to demonstrate a "tiny tower" design -- a home built on a 29' x 12' lot, but with six levels, containing two bedrooms, three bathrooms, an office, a deck, living space, and a kitchen. It's extremely clever. Rethinking minimum lot sizes could offer many cities the ability to use similar designs to fill in empty and under-utilized spaces with attractive, quality housing. ■ Density is really only achievable with the use of height. And while lot sizes form one major obstacle to density, the other obstacle is mobility. There is only a certain window of life during which people don't seem to mind climbing stairs. It starts sometime in later childhood and often ends at middle age. Climbing stairs might be good exercise, but it makes for a terrible livability obstacle to anyone with limited mobility (or even just aging joints). ■ Someone could strike a considerable blow on behalf of density if they could come up with a reliable, safe, and affordable single-family compact elevator system. ■ It's not just that single-family elevators would be good for stoking creative housing solutions meant to fill in under-utilized spaces with new construction. They would also help more people to age gracefully (and comfortably) in the homes they already know and love. ■ For countless reasons, we ought to be reluctant to exile our senior citizens to single-story residential life or to vast retirement complexes isolated from the rest of our communities. But making new or existing housing functional for them takes effort to remove obstacles. If we can make more places more suitable to people across the entire arc of life, then we can also extend the benefits of things like increased density to more people. ■ It's not always easy to see things that are right in front of our eyes, including the need to correct both legal and practical hindrances to better housing practices. But both exist, and it would be prudent to think about getting them out of the way. Attractive, creative solutions to the demand for density already exist and could be put to work doing a lot of good for us all.
November 28, 2022
Chinese police are forcing private citizens to delete photos from their phones
You don't have to be knee-deep in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill to know how anyone, anywhere, is likely to feel after being pushed around by police who snatch their phones and delete their pictures. People understand intuitively when they're being repressed.
Research on important matters is often boring
Rachael Meager: "One thing academics have to be disciplined about is focusing on the problems we are in the middle of solving rather than distracting ourselves with problems that seem more fun and interesting purely because we haven’t got stuck into them yet [...] Every really serious intellectual exercise is dumb, boring, stupid, frustrating, and disappointing. Learn to recognize the signs of success and rejoice!" Even academic research has to steer clear of just gravitating to whatever is shiny and new so it can actually answer the big questions -- which are inevitably hard and frustrating.
Sometimes talking like a local requires more than just pronouncing place names correctly. WCCO's use of a snow forecast map "translated into Minnesotan" is both hilarious and spot-on. Just remember: Even a "No, yeah, no" can turn into an "Aw, jeez" if there's an unexpected change in winds aloft, so stay tuned just in case there's an "Oopsie daisy".
Daily podcast listenership is at 28%
Among American adults ages 18 to 49. If anything, the numbers are probably far under-stated: It's time-consuming to report on that listenership.
"Think Occam's Razor, not evil genius"
Advice on watching Chinese policy-making, and it's believable. There's a widely-circulated myth that there's some magical 100-year plan behind what the Chinese Communist Party is doing. It looks and smells a lot more like a system based upon millions of apparatchiks desperately trying to avoid being imprisoned for wrongthink.
November 29, 2022
One of the more interesting developments to emerge from the defensive side in the war in Ukraine is the rollout of 4,000 "Points of Invincibility" across the country. As announced, "all basic services will be there, including electricity, mobile communications and the Internet, heat, water, and a first-aid kit. Absolutely free and 24/7." ■ The development is interesting for at least two reasons. The first is that it reveals just how rotten Russia's war against Ukraine has turned out to be. Russia keeps attacking Ukraine's energy grid, in a transparently terroristic bid to degrade the basic quality of life for the people living there. ■ It's barbaric and repugnant behavior on Russia's part. This isn't even a morally ambiguous case, like bombing the industrial centers of an aggressor nation in World War II. It's just a naked bid to impose the maximum civilian pain on a country that's only trying to defend itself. ■ But the second point of interest is how the "Points of Invincibility" are symptomatic behavior of a country getting its act together and leapfrogging its own development. The decisive factor in the Allied victory in World War II was probably the unfathomable retooling of the American economy into an invincible machine for producing virtually unlimited war materiel. American industry was building convoy ships by the thousands, and Boeing alone built just shy of 100,000 airplanes. ■ The United States moved forward, technologically and economically, at a breakneck pace because of (and following) World War II. That advancement wasn't worth the toll of war, of course, but it did provide a sort of compensation for it. ■ Ukraine, likewise, is set to emerge from the brutal and senseless war forced upon it as a much more capable nation than it was before. The whole country is being forced to learn and adapt at a screaming pace just to ensure its own survival. ■ But as long as it receives the material support it needs from sympathetic nations, it is gaining momentum towards military victory that deserves to be followed by a tremendous boom in peacetime. Small seeds of ideas like "Points of Invincibility" grow into the kinds of durable advantages later that make a country truly invincible in the long run. Heaven knows they deserve it.
A small peek inside China's surveillance state
There's virtually no such thing as privacy if the government doesn't want someone to have it. And that only makes the current protests all that much more courageous.
Consider the barbarity of Russia's choices
A children's author becomes one of many completely unjustifiable casualties of war. The Kremlin could stop the madness at any time.
Survey of 300 new municipal flags
You'll never believe how easily you will come to hate some of them!
You're not paying for an expensive book...
You're "paying a terrible price for knowledge"
November 30, 2022
The University of Iowa Children's Hospital is already widely-known thanks to the five-year-old neo-tradition of the "Hawkeye Wave", during which fans at Kinnick Stadium pause after the first quarter of a Hawkeye football game to wave at the wall of windows looking into the stadium from the hospital next door. It's a lovely and sentimental practice, and perhaps it does just a little to ground the passions of sports fanatics in things that are more important -- like the well-being of sick children. ■ It's also lovely and worth taking note that Dr. Sarah Scott, a resident physician at the hospital, decorates some of her patients' doors with hand-drawn pictures of Bluey and the Paw Patrol. It's certainly nice as a first-order matter -- she's to be applauded for doing nice things for children in tough situations. ■ But it's a particular delight -- and a thing well worth celebrating -- whenever people who are advanced practitioners of the STEM fields also show that they have well-developed artistic sides. ■ On one hand, people probably take it too far when they try to shoehorn "arts" into the middle of STEM to re-brand it as "STEAM". The whole reason we cluster science, technology, engineering, and mathematics together is because they are widely acknowledged to be hard topics, and ones in which society has historically under-credited and failed to nurture the latent talents of big parts of the population. When we dilute the focus, we risk failing to take long-overdue action to make sure that women and girls aren't driven away from the STEM fields, and that racial and ethnic minorities aren't left out. ■ But on the other hand, the humanities are good for everyone. A CPA who appreciates the nuances of Sinclair Lewis's "Babbitt" and its critique of life in the middle class ought to be a better accountant for that well-roundedness. An engineer who develops an artistic appreciation for period designs stands a chance of better integrating a thoughtful approach to the human factors of how their products are used in the real world. And it would take eons to document just how important it is for technology leaders to understand how people are affected by their work. ■ It may be going too far to say there's nothing new under the Sun, but people have been pondering and documenting human nature for a whole lot longer than anyone has known about magnetic resonance imaging or splitting the atom. ■ It's important to keep pushing the frontiers of what we know all across the STEM fields, because progress there often has huge consequences for how we live materially. No group should be left behind, and nobody should receive a diploma from high school or beyond without gaining thoughtful STEM-related education along the way, no matter their emphasis or major academic discipline. ■ Likewise, nobody should emerge from a STEM-intensive education without also gaining a well-considered education in the liberal arts and humanities. Whatever we do, in personal or professional life, is ultimately for the good of people. ■ Well-roundedness isn't just good in the abstract; it is essential to ensuring that we have access to the full range of tools we need to make sure that our work, no matter how sophisticated, remains humane at heart. The humanities are to the STEM fields much like a seat belt is to an automobile: Using them doesn't slow down the rate of travel, it merely helps to keep us safer should we find ourselves starting to steer wrong.
Peak performance is not average sustainable performance
Most of us are pretty good at quarter- to half-hour bursts of concentration, and it's really hard to sustain it for longer than that -- unless you switch back and forth between tasks so that they keep feeling new. Our extremely powerful, extremely curious brains are a blessing, but there are some natural limits imposed by that curiosity itself.
EU to Elon Musk: Do we have your attention now?
Impulsively blowing up the content-moderation process on Twitter wasn't the billionaire's brightest move. Now he risks getting banned by regulators.